‘A Bold Step for Me’: Local Officials Take Stands Against Tennessee’s Strict Abortion Ban

Knoxville City Councilwoman Lynne Fugate.

By Anita Wadhwani, Tennessee Lookout 

Knoxville City Councilwoman Lynne Fugate had never before supported a resolution directed to the state legislature, much less one about abortion. It’s up to citizens, not city leaders, to advocate before those elected representatives, she said. 

But last week the longtime Republican took what she characterized as a “bold step for me.”

Fugate backed a resolution urging the Tennessee Legislature to immediately decriminalize abortions performed by doctors for “the well-being of their patients.” 

The Knoxville resolution asks state lawmakers to legalize abortions in the cases of rape, incest, sex trafficking, when the fetus is not viable and to “protect the life and health of the pregnant person.”

“This is a bold step for me,” said Fugate, who also serves as the CEO of the Girl Scouts Council of the Southern Appalachians. “I will be getting vilified on both sides for not going far enough in one way or the other. But I had a high-risk pregnancy. My sorority sister was my OB-GYN. I trusted her implicitly. And I shudder at the thought that she would have hesitated to give me her best medical advice because she might be prosecuted.”

Knoxville on last Wednesday became the latest Tennessee city to enact resolutions challenging the state’s strict abortion ban, which became effective on Aug. 25.

Clarksville, Memphis and Nashville city councils in the past week have also passed resolutions in opposition to–and, in some cases, in defiance of–state abortion law. 

The resolutions are not binding. But nearly three weeks after the state’s abortion ban took effect, they may signal a growing discomfort even among Republican officials about the strict, no exceptions ban.

Tennessee’s abortion law, formally known as the Human Life Protection Act, bans abortion from the moment of fertilization. Instead of an outright exception to spare danger to the life and health of pregnant women, the law instead tells doctors that they may defend themselves against criminal prosecution by arguing abortion was a life-saving procedure. 

Since it’s passage, a chorus of doctors and criminal defense attorneys have joined abortion advocates in drawing attention to the strict nature of the abortion ban, and the chilling effect it imposes on ER and OB-GYN doctors unsure if performing a life-sparing abortion will result in their arrests and criminal prosecution.

The lack of a clear exception for a pregnant patient’s life has already caught some Republican lawmakers, even who voted for the law, by surprise.

Sen. Mark Pody, a Lebanon Republican who voted for the measure in 2019, told the Lookout earlier that he understood there was “an exception” for the life of the mother. Sen. Paul Rose, R-Covington, who also voted for the law, said he would need more explanation. Another supporter of the law, Sen. Ed Jackson, R-Jackson, said he was uncertain how the law works in cases when the mother’s life is endangered.

Gov. Bill Lee has insisted the law provides a meaningful mechanism for abortions necessary to protect the life of the mother.

“Our law is designed to allow for doctors to perform procedures in dangerous maternal health situations where the life of the mother is at stake,” Lee told reporters last month. “That is how that bill was constructed. It protects the life of the unborn. It protects the life of the mother.”

On last Monday,  Clarksville City Council approved a resolution calling on the Legislature to repeal the Human Life Protection Act, and the law it superseded: a law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy.

On last Tuesday, Nashville Metro Council approved a measure banning the use of license plate readers in enforcement of the state’s abortion laws.

The Metro Council last month approved a measure requiring companies seeking incentive grants to report whether their employee health care coverage covers costs for out-of-state medical treatment–including abortions–that are not available in an employee’s home state.

Previously, Nashville’s council also approved a non-binding resolution supporting health coverage for Metro employees who travel out of state for medical procedures not available in Tennessee, including abortions. In July, it voted to ask local law enforcement to make abortion investigations a low priority level.

Memphis City Council in July approved a resolution urging law enforcement and the district attorneys to refrain from investigating and prosecuting doctors who perform abortions.

Fugate, the Republican councilwoman, said during last Wednesday’s council meeting in Knoxville that she had heard concerns from OB-GYNs about the law–concerns that persist despite the governor’s, and Republican lawmakers’, assurances that doctors performing life saving abortions will not be subject to criminal prosecution.

“I have friends who are OB-GYNS who I called to talk to about this and they shared that same concern with me,” she said. Her constituents share the same fears, she said. 

“I put my name on this resolution,” she said. “I have never done that. But the concern I have in speaking to women of all political stripes who are concerned that there are no exceptions and their doctor can be prosecuted is why I put my name on this.”